So let’s send a shout out to the man whose name is synonymous with genius. And let’s remind him that he owes his first wife, Mileva Mari?, an apology, a life back.
When Mileva Mari? turned 15, her father got special permission for her to take classes at an all-male prep school. She earned the highest grades in both math and physics, and started studying medicine in 1896. Soon after, she became only the fifth woman to be accepted at the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic, later known as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). That’s all to say that she was one smart cookie.
One of her classmates was Albert Einstein. Seventeen years old, he was just a boy. She was 21. He called her Dollie. She called him Johnny. Einstein’s parents opposed the relationship because she was too old, too bookish, disabled from birth because of a displaced hip, a Serb, and not Jewish.
Her grades started suffering and Mileva failed her final exams. Shortly after, she became pregnant. In the first of a lifelong series of horribleness, Einstein began to make excuses not to see her. Mileva gave birth to a daughter, Lieserl, and there is no record of Albert ever going to see the child. A year later, they were married, but when Mileva joined Albert in Bern to be married, the child was no longer with her. Either she died or was given up for adoption—no one knows.
Einstein’s most incredible year of work—1905—came during his marriage to Mileva, a woman about whom not much was known until the later publication of love letters between the two in which Einstein talks about “our work” and “our theory” and praises her intelligence. The argument still rages—did Mileva substantively contribute to his work? Did she actually do the math for him, as some say? Did she give up her life for him? As Mileva wrote to her friend, Helene, “…all that fame does not leave a lot of time for a wife. But what can be done, one person gets the pearl and the other just gets the shell?"
Their marriage grew strained; soon Einstein had a new lover, his older cousin and childhood playmate, Elsa Loewenthal. The crisis came in the spring of 1914, when Einstein accepted the position of a permanent member of the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences, as well as a full professorship at the University of Berlin. Mileva resisted going with him because his lover, Elsa, lived in Berlin. But go they did after Einstein delivered a long list of rules to Mileva, with commands such as, "you must answer me at once when I speak to you."
In July, the day before the outbreak of World War I, Mileva came to her senses, packed her bags, and took the boys back to Zurich, where they moved into a boardinghouse. When the war finally ended, Mileva agreed to a divorce. And Einstein agreed to sign over to her any future Nobel Prize money as part of the divorce settlement. He was now free to marry Elsa.
Instead, he asked Elsa’s eldest daughter to marry him! She demurred and he married Elsa in 1919, just as he begins his rise to world fame. He continued to have affairs throughout the marriage, with Elsa’s permission.
As 1919 wound to a close, observations of a solar eclipse proved the General Theory of Relativity. Newspapers ran headlines: "Men of Science More or Less Agog." After Einstein won the Nobel Prize, he quietly routed the prize money to Mileva, as they had agreed. The next year, Albert fell in love with a friend’s niece, hiring her as a "secretary." Elsa permitted Albert to see his mistress twice a week, in exchange for keeping a low profile.
“You have here a dear, seriously ill child. Often he asks if his father will come…,” his ex-wife Mileva wrote to Albert in 1932 about their son, Eduard, diagnosed with schizophrenia.
When Mileva died, her newspaper obituary didn’t mention Albert.
What do we give away to serve the needs of others?
Ellen Goodman, writing in the Boston Globe, addressed the question of Mileva Mari?:
The tragedy of Mileva’s life is real enough. But it’s of a more personal and a common dimension. It’s a parable of two young people who begin life as intellectual soulmates. "How happy I am to have found in you an equal creature who is equally strong and independent as I am," wrote Albert. But somewhere along the way, life and love had an unequal effect in their lives as man and woman, and as scientists.
It’s possible to read between the outlines. Pregnant and unmarried, Mileva flunked her final exam. Their first child was born out of wedlock and presumably adopted. By the time their second and third were born, Mileva had become wife, caretaker and often supporter of the family. Her scientific work stopped, his soared. Finally, the famous Albert left her for another woman and Mileva spent the rest of her life struggling to support herself and her children, including a psychotic son.
We can round up generations of wives before and after Mileva whose star faded or was eclipsed, who went from scholar and co-author to typist to a name on her husband’s dedication page or his obit or nothing. Few women marry geniuses, but many have spent their lives in the shadow of ‘great’ men.”
When Einstein died, his brain inspired such awe that it was removed for study. But modern standards add another dimension to his biography. In his personal life, Albert was no Einstein.
On second thought, on this day of Einstein’s birth, let’s remember Mileva Mari? instead.